4 Signs Your Kanban Implementation Is Screwed

Kanban is a really effective tool that can help you visualize your work… when implemented correctly. I’ve been working on introducing and coaching Kanban lately, and I’ve found it’s not easy to make a smooth transition. If you are starting to use Kanban on your team, there are a few warning signs you should look out for that can signal that your implementation might not be going so well.

Warning #1: You have 30 minute conversations about the color of the card, the name of the columns, or how to filter out tags.

“What color should we make that task? Blue? No, we have blue already. Let’s do red. No red’s an issue. Can we tag it instead? How do we filter on tags?”

If your team would rather debate what color the card should be than talk about ways to get their tasks done, something is very wrong. There’s a term for this. It’s called bikeshedding. Bikeshedding is where we debate about trivial issues and ignore the things that actually matter. If your team has a habit of bikeshedding, then they are not using the Kanban effectively. All conversations should revolve around how we’re going to get the work done, where are we, and what we can improve. Of course at the beginning of an implementation, you’ll need to get the structure down. But, if it’s been 3 months and these conversations are still dragging on, you have a problem.

Warning #2: You don’t talk about goals or progress during standup.

Every morning we have a kanban standup that looks at the work to be done on the board and what everyone has accomplished the day before. After standup, we talk about where we can improve our workflow, which is usually apparent on the board. One day I noticed that we have been talking about what we’ve done each day, but I still wasn’t sure if we were making progress towards our goal or not. If Kanban’s purpose is to visualize your work, you need to make sure you are also visualizing progress. Otherwise, how can you tell if you are doing the work well? If your teams don’t have concrete evidence that they are making progress, it’s time for management to go back and set some measurable goals and communicate them.

Warning #3: Cards miraculously appear in doing.

The flow of our boards usually goes Backlog > Next > Doing. When a team member needs more work, they can move a card from Next into Doing, as we have already planned and prioritized those items. I’ve seen many times where we get into standup and find new cards in Doing that were never in Next. Of course really important issues might come up and you’ll need to deal with them, but this doesn’t happen every, single day. Teams that bypass the planning and jump into the work are often struggling with prioritization. Also, executives could be asking for many quick, unplanned favors that require the teams to context switch too often. Cards being created in Doing is a huge sign this could be happening to your team.

Warning #4: You make cards to remind you to deal with problems with the cards.

This is another form of bikeshedding. When one of my teams was doing continuous improvement on their kanban board, they would routinely come up with experiments that involved making a card to remind them to fix the problems with the other cards. For example, we saw that one team was having trouble with prioritization. So they decided to do an experiment to implement goals for the cards. Then cards appeared on the board that reminded them to set goals for the cards. This type of inception can lead to really complicated boards and take the focus away from getting the work done.

 

There are many underlying causes for these warning signs. Some I was able to mention, but a lot of it goes deeper. While I can’t diagnose every cause without working directly with your team, I’ve found the most of the common ones were these:

  • Kanban could be the wrong tool.
  • Your team might not be ready for it yet, meaning they cannot grok the concepts.
  • Your team cannot self organize.
  • Your team does not know how to prioritize.
  • There is no system for handling new work or quick tasks assigned by management.
  • Managers are not harnessing the valuable data they can get from the Kanban board.

and the one we rarely account for but is the mother of all problems

  • You did a really bad job explaining the purpose of the tool, which is above all, to visualize the work.

Every team is different, it may be a combination of these causes that are inhibiting your kaban paradise, or it could be primarily one. Teams also take some time to get adjusted to new tools, and that should be considered. If you’re experiencing any of these signs after a few months though, something needs to change. It’s better to recognize the warning signs early so you can act.

The Build Trap

“Move Fast and Break Things”

This mantra seems to have taken the startup world by storm since Facebook made it their motto a few years ago. I have heard countless CEOs say it’s part of their company culture, something that makes them innovative. You can even find some enterprises repeating this phrase to their employees at an attempt to channel startup culture.

There is a serious flaw with “Move Fast and Break Things”, and it’s that most companies see this as an excuse to stop analyzing what they intend to build and why they should build it. Those companies get stuck in what I call “The Build Trap”.

It usually happens like this:

After finding some kind of product/market fit and traction with customers, we raise money from investors and hire a team of developers. Now we also have a bunch of important people who want to know what we’re doing with their money. We want to show them how hard we’re working, so let’s make sure we’re constantly building and releasing. Right now the developers are building Version 1, but once that’s out what is next? Developers can’t just stop working; we need something for them to do.

Product Roadmap meetings are held and ideas are generated on what we could do build to increase our KPIs – drive registrations, more sales, etc. Ideas come up from Product Managers or Executives, and some seem like a good bet so we schedule them. When the time comes to build the product, we design and build the whole thing based off the ideas that we had originally.

This cycle continues until the company grows from 100 people to 500 people to huge corporations, where it becomes part of the norm and the way we do things.

itsatrap

And thus we fall into The Build Trap. The problem with this cycle is that our first ideas are not always our best. When we immediately jump into build mode, we don’t have much information on how our customers will respond to these products, what they would want to do with them, or if they even solve a problem. Our design or product decisions are not based on fact, but on our best guesses. Most of those guesses are wrong.

In order to base our decisions on fact, we need to take a step back and focus on THINKING more than BUILDING. Thinking gets neglected in companies because the act of thinking doesn’t directly produce something we can give to customers. Only building does that. This mentality is evident in our everday work lives. Look at the way we measure the success of our workers and our companies. All of our metrics are geared towards production of code or product. Even Agile standups – “What did you do today, what did you do yesterday?” If you haven’t delivered your items on time, you get penalized. If you have delivered your items on time, you get rewarded. If you can produce more than another person, you get promoted.

This is a very flawed system because the amount of things we produce is no guarantee of a successful company. Building is the easy part of the product development process. Figuring out what to build and how we are going to build it is the hard part. Yet, we are only allowed a few days or a week at the beginning of each sprint for designing and speccing this out. We completely neglect research and experimentation in favor of spending more time writing code.

If we want to create better products and get out of the Build Trap, we need to change our mentality. This is true for both startups and large corporations. We need to give ample time throughout the product development process for exploring problems, thinking of solutions, and testing those solutions with our customers. Employees should be rewarded for solving problems, learning, and creating products our customers want, not how much code they can produce. “What have you delivered today?” has to become “What have you learned about our customers or our business, and how can we use that to our advantage?” When we change our conversations to strategic thinking instead of production, we can create a culture that is truly innovative and competitive.

So the next time someone at work says “move fast and break things”, ask them “what are we learning by doing so?”

Rethinking the Product Roadmap

I walked into the conference room on the first day of work at one of my previous jobs and looked at a huge list of features on the whiteboard. There were maybe 20 in total, with a few scribbles on the side that looked like the beginnings of more. The other PMs explained to me that these were the items that were in their Product Roadmap the previous year, but they had run out of time to develop them all. The dev teams were crunching for the first few weeks of the new year to finish these features and ship them to customers. To me it seemed that some of these features were unnecessary and there was more important work to do, but I quickly discovered that a lot of the clients had these written into their contracts… and we had not fulfilled those obligations on time. I watched over the next month and a half as the teams battled an exhausting schedule, fixing terribly buggy code and working through botched releases to get the products shipped before the next phase of the Product Roadmap started.

Now this case was a very extreme version of when “Product Roadmaps Go Wild” (TV series anyone?), but it’s not uncommon. I’ve seen unrealistic roadmaps destroy teams and good products time and time again. Many problems could be solved if we stop considering Product Roadmaps to be a Gantt Chart rather than a high-level guide, but the way we make traditional product roadmaps prevent teams from being innovative and successful. Here’s why:

Estimations are arbitrary.

Estimating the time it takes to create a feature usually ends up in a guessing game. I’ve even seen product roadmaps get built without developer input (note: this is a terrible idea). Typically developers will listen to a high level overview of which features will be built, and then assign some kind of value that will indicate how long it will take to build them. These products are popped into time slots and something else gets put right behind it – a la gantt chart.

Now when teams are two weeks away from the end of those X weeks and it’s obvious the product isn’t going to be finished, one of two things happen. One is the development time runs over and the next product is pushed off. This usually results in lots of screaming by management “we missed our deadlines” or “you didn’t prioritize correctly”. Or, the other – the team ends up rushing to release whatever they have so they can make the deadline and avoid the chastising. Number two can be an even bigger problem, as it usually results in buggy code being pushed out and little testing. More work piles up to fix the product, but that becomes impossible since the product roadmap is full and we need to start the next epic. Your product now becomes the king of the bugs.

It’s nearly impossible to estimate large chunks of work without planning out and thinking through the features, which we do not do when we plan roadmaps so far in advance. See the first example of this post.

Your product.

Your product – King of the Bugs!

Time for validation and research is rarely budgeted in.

Developing an excellent product needs extensive research, product strategy, a great UX, solid development, plenty of testing, and feedback from customers. Estimations in roadmaps usually leave out at least two of these: testing and research. When companies estimate how long a product will take, they usually tack on a week or two at the beginning for wireframe and design. Because little research is done, we often end up building products that do not solve users’ problems. We don’t find this out until we’re working on the next product in the Product Roadmap because we shipped it at the end of the time frame and did not include time for feedback. Then time is rarely budgeted in to go back and fix the previous product since our roadmap is full. Which brings me to the next problem…

There’s little room for change.

When we fill up 100% of our allotted time in the Roadmap with the development efforts, we leave no time to act on the feedback and make improvements on existing features. Every time we release a product, we learn new information about the customer’s problems, frustrations, likes, and dislikes. That information should go back into making our products better, but all too often it does not because by the time we receive enough information to act, we’ve moved on to the next product.

We may also find out during one of these feedback sessions that there is a bigger problem we should be tackling. In fear that changing course will screw up our nicely planned roadmap, the normal response to this is “we’ll slot it in when we go over the roadmap again”. Unfortunately most companies revisit roadmaps twice to four times per year which is far too infrequent to respond to change fast enough.

 

A lot of the problems I mentioned above can be mitigated or lessened if you are constantly revisiting your roadmap, doing estimations correctly, and have a great UX practice. I know a few companies who are doing these things and seeing some success. But there is one fatal flaw I see in product roadmaps that we cannot correct with these processes.

Product Roadmaps focus solely on solutions and features, ignore problems.

Product Roadmaps plan out which large feature sets will be built over a long period of time, called “Epics”. Since we plan Roadmaps well in advance, by the time we reach the start of an Epic we usually don’t have much up to date research or information on what we’re building. It could even be irrelevant or the problem has been solved. But, we rarely ever scrap these features. Why? We completely miss the point of building features, which is to solve problems for our users. We focus so much on planning and speccing out these elaborate features that we forget why we’re building them in the first place. When the speccing phase starts on the Epic, we generally don’t spend too much time really analyzing if the problem is still relevant because it had been so obvious when we planned the roadmap. Unfortunately this is the nature of thinking of solutions without carefully analyzing the problem first – you get wrapped up in the bells and whistles of feature sets, the original problem starts becoming more of a rumor than a motivation to solve something.

productfeatures

I see this as a major problem especially for startups that are transitioning to young businesses. They are putting more processes in place so they can scale well, but they still want to hold on to their competitive edge – innovating rapidly. When these startups start implementing product roadmaps, they find themselves moving out of problem solving mode and into feature overload territory. This can stifle innovation faster than anything I know. When the team is more focused on the processes of a company and meeting deadlines than creating value for a user, that team is in trouble.

So how do we give these teams some structure and direction, without stopping the innovation?

The Problem Roadmap

I’m suggesting that teams I work with start to treat Product Roadmaps as Problem Roadmaps. Instead of focusing on features to be developed, we focus on problems to be solved.

product-roadmap

The Problem Roadmap can be planned over any amount of time, depending on what is good for your business. In my example I use Quarters, which I think gives adequate time to work through a test and a solution. It’s broken into two phases: Discover & Experiment and Build & Validate.

Each cross-functional team works on a problem to be solved during the time frame. Their goal is to the solve the problem. We assign a KPI to each team which signifies if the problem has been solved successfully or not.

During the Discover & Experiment phase, the teams are focusing on customer research and validating that the problem exists. Once they have gathered enough research, they will start to build an MVP to test in the market. This part of the process should be done rapidly but carefully, with extensive customer interaction. After the MVP has proved successful, they move on to the Build & Validate phase.

In the Build & Validate phase, teams focus on minimum solutions (feature sets) to solve the core problem for the user. They are constantly releasing to customers and receiving feedback. They plan what they can build in the time frame, keeping the features essential and useful. When they have feedback, they can add more features and iterate.

If a product needs to be built out more at the end of the time frame, they can add it to the prioritized problems and weigh it against other problems that need to be solved using metrics. If it’s high priority that these features be developed, they can continue the Build & Validate phase.

How to plan a Problem Roadmap:

  • As a team/company, list out the top problems customers are facing now.
  • Prioritize the list of problems with the strongest at the top.
  • Assign each cross functional team a problem to tackle in that quarter and KPI to measure their progress in solving the problem.
  • Each team is responsible for validating that their problem is still a strong issue for the customer. If a problem is no longer an issue, they will move on to the next problem on the list and validate that.
  • Once a problem has been validated, the teams will conduct research on the problem by directly interacting with the customers.
  • Teams will start to develop MVPs after initial research and test in the market.
  • Once an MVP has been validated (has met the goals set by the team), the teams will start building a solution that can be made in the time frame left. They will focus on Minimum Feature Sets, with just the essentials. Teams will focus on releasing often for customer feedback and iterations.
  • At the end of the quarter, the teams can decide whether more investment is needed in adding to the solution after they have received customer feedback in the initial stages. The roadmap will be adjusted for this.
  • At the beginning of the next cycle, the process repeats. We revisit the list of problems and re-prioritize them based on customer needs, or add in new problems.

This Problem Roadmap solves many of the problems above. Instead of thinking in features, we think about how we can deliver the most value to our customers by solving their problems. Estimation for complex feature sets is not needed, since we focus on minimum solutions that can be built and released in short time frames to get rapid customer feedback. The roadmap is flexible since problems are constantly being evaluated, and irrelevant problems will be squashed at the beginning of each cycle. We can communicate the problems we plan on tackling to the team and our customers without committing to solutions we do not know will solve the problem.

What do you think? What have you done with Product Roadmaps that has been successful? If you decide to try Problem Roadmaps, I’d love to hear more about it!

 

In defense of originality

“We’re the Amazon of cats.”

“We’re the Uber of drinks.”

“We’re the Netflix of hair care.”

“We’re the X of Y” seems to be all I am hearing startups describe themselves as these days. It’s become so prevalent, you can find youtube videos or dumb HBO shows that use these sayings in dialogue to mock entrepreneurs. When I was learning to pitch a startup at Techpeaks, we were encouraged to use these analogies to describe our new ideas. We were told that investors would understand us faster. I think overall this is actually hurting the quality and originality of products in the long run.

When someone asks what your company does, you should communicate the value to the user immediately and clearly. For example, if you are a wine delivery service that sent a few new bottles every month to my users to try so they can discover new ones, would you want to be remembered as:

“Netflix for wines.”

or

“Winernator – A way to experience and discover new and unique wines every month.”

Every description of the company should be about the value to the user, not somebody else’s valuable company that kind of resembles yours. But this isn’t the part that’s incredibly harmful. The problem is that these comparisons are starting to take a toll on the product and user experience.

As a UX consultant, I’ve been helping startups/ larger companies come up with their product strategy and create new business lines. I recently had a situation where my team and I had been working with a client who wanted to be the Skyscanner* of Mortgages*. When we asked the founder what value did he want to provide to his users, he talked a lot about the current problems in the market. He explained that he wanted Skyscanner because it allowed people to drill down on the right flights for them, something he wanted to do for his financial products.

Great. We had the information we needed to make a great experience for his users based off this problem of drilling down to the right products for the right users. We presented him with three different options for their site. He wasn’t satisfied. After a lot of back and forth he said he did not want these experiences, he wanted Skyscanner. So we made something that was a bit more similar to skyscanner with their filters and took it back. No. He wanted Skyscanner.

He literally wanted the entire experience  and layout to be a duplicate of Skyscanner… but for mortgages.

The experience for Skyscanner was made for people searching for flights, not mortgages. Users don’t search for mortgages the same way they search for flights. They will be in a different setting, in a different circumstance, with different concerns. You have to qualify people for mortgages. You don’t qualify people for flights. The requirements and the use cases are different, and the experiences don’t match up.

Unfortunately this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this position. This is what happens when you let another company’s value become YOUR product’s value. Founders think about their pitches and product positions so many times a day, that it becomes ingrained in them. If you are staring at other people’s products all day and reciting yours as an analogy to them, you are going to blur the lines between what is your product and what is theirs.

I am not saying don’t use a business model that works. I’m saying don’t think because it worked in one vertical it will work in another. Each product we build needs to be unique and original for our targeted audience. Every user’s reaction differs depending on what their situation is at that moment of need. If they are filling out very important forms, they might be incredibly careful, articulate, and neat. If they are taking notes in a meeting, they might be rushing to get things done. This doesn’t mean because they are writing that the same product will work or even be needed in both cases.

I would love to hear founders drop the X of Y analogies and start explaining their products for the value that they convey, not the other successes they wish to imitate. If your product is solving a problem in an original way, let that shine through. To me, that’s the better pitch.

[*Note: Analogies changed for anonymity’s sake.]